BEIJING – Top Chinese officials made a surprising announcement Tuesday that authorities have released most detainees held in a government program for mass internment of Muslims from ethnic minorities in the far west of China, but did not provide hard numbers or specific details to support their claim.
Alken Tunyaz, deputy prime minister of the Xinjiang region, said that 90 percent of the people held in what the government calls vocational training centers are returned to society. It was argued that it would be almost impossible to check independently of the well-controlled region and face the disappearance and detention bills collected by relatives abroad and human rights groups.
Chinese government public relations efforts made in a news briefing with regional officials was the clearest signal that officials are trying to defuse international criticism over the internment of a million Uighurs and other Muslims from an ethnic minority.
"At the moment, most of the people who have received education and training have returned to society and returned to their families," said Mr Tunis, using the government's official description of the a s camps [образователни и обучителни центрове].
"Most have already managed to reach employment," he said.
Shoshrat Zakir, the Prime Minister of Xinjiang, also said that about 90 percent of the prisoners in the camps had been returned to society.
The ambiguous wording of the officials left room for uncertainty as to how much freedom could be exercised by the released prisoners. Although they did not detail the circumstances in which the detainees were "returned to society", it is likely that many people believed to be released were in fact still under severe restrictions or forced to work in factories operating under strict security.  Tahir Yimin, a Washington-based Uighur activist, expressed skepticism at the suggestion by Chinese officials that most detainees had been released.
'Uighurs abroad continue to be unable to reach their relatives in the region. No phone calls, no internet communications, "he said. "We're not sure who they let go."
Mr. Yimin called on the authorities to remove restrictions on the region and allow independent parties to check the situation.
"If the Chinese government is honest and confident in what it says to the media, it should allow people to communicate freely and go outside the country freely and allow independent media to visit and investigate freely," he said.
He added that there is still a lot of data on the disappearance of people in the region, including religious leaders, intellectuals, businessmen and farmers.
"We have credible evidence and facts that show that only women, children and the elderly are abandoned," he said. "Many young men and fathers are being detained."
Chinese officials declined to say how many people were detained in the camps or how many were released, arguing that the liquid conditions made it difficult to assess. They said that the forced indoctrination program – for which the government aims to curb religious extremism – was effective.
"These people have become a positive factor in society," says Mr. Zakir, regional chairman.  Xinjiang is home to more than 11 million Uighurs, largely Muslim minorities, and their treatment has become a global human rights dispute under President Xinjiang. Western governments, UN human rights experts and advocates of Uighur self-determination have condemned the increasingly severe severe restrictions on many Uighurs, especially their detention by hundreds of thousands in upbringing camps in Xinjiang.
James Leybold, an associate professor of politics at La Trobe University in Australia who studied the wave of mass detention in Xinjiang, said there was "disagreeable evidence" of a small number of camp releases. But he said he was skeptical of the mass releases, in part because the evidence had not been filtered out to Uighurs living abroad.
Instead, Prof. Leibold says that the increasing number of prisoners can be recruited to work in factories, often linked to camps, where they also live in strict security.
"It seems very unlikely and frankly unthinkable to the Chinese Communist Party to build this massive network of internment camps and then just flood them a few years later," says Professor Leibold of
The goals of the camp may have always been designed to evolve over time, from education to production, while their coercive, involuntary and extrajudicial nature remains the same, ”he writes.
Mr. Zakir is the highest Uighur official in Xinjiang and has repeatedly served as a public figure in defending Chinese government policies in the region, including the fast-growing camps. Unlike Chen Quanggu, the more powerful Communist secretary party from the region remained in the background.
In October party officials began publicly recognizing and defending camps, many of which are large, prison facilities behind walls. In March, Mr Zakir likened them to boarding schools, where prisoners – including some of the most famous Uighur intellectuals – also learn Chinese and useful job skills.
The Chinese Government says that the camps and other rapid security measures have quenched the bloody anti-government attacks by Uighurs. Critics, however, claim that mass detentions of Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups sow bitterness, which could be even more dangerous.
Earlier this month, a group of 22 countries, including Australia, Britain, Canada, France and Germany, issued a statement calling on China to stop the mass arrest of Uighurs and other Muslims. China struck back with a letter signed by 37 ambassadors from countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America praising their human rights record, including Xinjiang's "de-radicalization" policies.